Building a relationship takes time. There is no set amount of time it takes, it differs from person to person, personal to professional. But 12 years certainly seems like a fair amount of time to lay the groundwork for a relationship. Despite that, a number of Jewish day school students have not, in all that time, built a relationship with God. For the sake of this article, we are taking it as a given that families who send their children to Jewish day school for 12 years are interested in the development of this relationship. Admittedly, building a relationship with God comes more easily for some than for others (see “The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into our Genes” by Dr. Dean Hammer).
Not to exclude other possible reasons, I want to single out and explore two roadblocks that, once addressed, might enable more students to build a relationship with God. The first roadblock occurs when teachers purposefully avoid addressing questions relating to God as they come up in the course of classroom teaching, and the second involves the lack of education surrounding prayer and its meaning.
Throughout my two-decade career working with college students and young professionals, I have shared many conversations with day school graduates about their school experiences. Far too often, conversations with them about God have been their first positive experience at being able to raise questions about God and to voice their thoughts, and at times, doubts, about God’s existence. Not addressing an individual’s queries about God in the classroom is a serious flaw. For one, once the question about God is raised, the entire class has heard it and even those students that weren’t thinking about it now have it on their minds. Secondly, for the student who raised the question and didn’t get an answer, the dilemma did not disappear. It is entirely possible that for that individual, and now for the entire class, they are thinking that the teacher either doesn’t know the answer or that Judaism has no answers.
In the recent (2016) Nishma research study, which surveyed those who have left the Orthodox community, one of the reasons most often given was that after graduating, the young people had learned things that contradicted what they had been previously taught and believed. This later discovery can cause a person to deeply distrust what has been taught in Jewish day school. We should welcome the opportunity to discuss contradictions that students ask questions about.
What day school graduates have expressed to me is a lack of connection between the God of their Jewish education and the God they seek when they yearn for spirituality in their lives. The God of their Jewish education, the God of the Torah, has little, if anything in common with who they are today. They can recite many a passage from the Torah and the Talmud, should they ever be called upon to do so, but they don’t feel any affinity toward God. The Torah they studied and the God of that Torah don’t seem relevant to their lives today. For instance, they have gay friends who went to day school with them but what the Torah says about homosexuality was never even discussed. Our emphasis on completing our curriculua may have succeeded, but all too often it has been at the expense of giving students the tools to build a relationship with God. Aside from individual cases of God-dialogue between a teacher and a student, which are held privately, for most students there is a real disconnect.
While there are a multitude of ways that people may connect with God (and we should encourage students to explore them), an obvious one, in the day school context, is tefillah (prayer). The challenges surrounding prayer are numerous and often discussed among day school teachers and administrators. Some of those challenges include, but are not exclusive to, the issues of attendance at prayer, as well as decorum and participation. My first response to this is that tefillah is not just a problem in schools; it is a problem in our synagogues as well. It is overly simplistic to chalk up the entire matter to kids and adolescence. We should consider what our kids see role-modeled in our own synagogues. Role modeling is a powerful tool in transmitting values. In a recent conversation with administrators at one all-girls high school where the administrators boasted of the close relationships their teachers build with their students, the topic of morning tefillah came up. Once again, they reiterated the same challenges of attendance, decorum and participation. When I asked about their teachers being present at tefillah, the response I got was that it would be too difficult for them to be there. I wondered what message was being transmitted to these young women if their very own religious role models are not present at tefillah.
As part of Jewish education, starting the school day in prayer is essential. From the students’ perspective, getting to morning tefillah means being at school before classes even start and is often seen as something to get through without much meaning attached to it. Tefillah is seen as ancillary to their school day and to their education. Some of the reasons given to me by day school alumni, both female and male, as to why they aren’t really interested in praying are, first, because they don’t really understand what they are saying, and second, because they have a lot of questions about God, so they are not comfortable praying. In the 12 years spent at a Jewish day school, there needs to be a way that allows for an education and understanding of the prayers that we are asking our kids to say every day, and are hoping they will continue to say every day, long after they leave our institutions. What do the words mean, who wrote each prayer, when was it written, what does Jewish law say about prayer and how about using your own self-composed prayers? Is praying supposed to be a spiritual experience — and what if it isn’t? Teaching about prayer and discussing its meaning open up the possibility of creating a connection with prayer and conceivably to God. If we want the takeaway, after 12 years of Jewish education, to be in a relationship with God, we need to make the building of that relationship a proactive priority.
If part of the goal of Jewish education is not only to impart knowledge but to build the foundation for a lifelong relationship with God, then understanding prayer should be a priority, and God should be an integral part of classroom conversation.
Beth Hait is the former assistant dean of students at YU/Stern College and is currently in practice as a life coach. Her website is bethhait.com and she can be reached at Dr.Beth.Hait@gmail.com.